Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Citing dynamic data

Beautiful animation from http://uxblog.idvsolutions.com/2013/07/a-breathing-earth.html - go check out the larger versions!
Citing dynamic data is a topic that just keeps coming around, every time data citation is mentioned, usually as a way of pointing out that data citation is not like text citation, because people can and will want to get their hands on the most recent data in a dataset, and simply don't want to wait for a frozen version. There's also confusion about what makes something citeable or not (see "DOI != citeable" by Carl Boettiger), tied into the whole DOI for citation thing and the requirements for a dataset to have a DOI assigned.

As I've said many times before, citing data is all about using it to support the scholarly record. We have other methods of linking data to papers, or data to other data - that's what the Internet is all about after all. I maintain that citation is all about getting back to exactly the thing the author of the article was talking about when they put the citation in the article.

If you’re citing something so you can simply point to it ("the most recent version of the dataset can be found at blah"), and aren’t really that worried about whether it’s changed since the pointer was made, then you can do that easily with a citation with a http link in it. That way you go automatically to the most recent version of the dataset. 

If however, you need to be sure that the user gets back to exactly the same data each time, because that's the data you used in your analysis, then that data becomes part of the scientific record and needs to be frozen. How you get back to that exact version is up to the dataset archive – it can be done via frozen snapshots, or by backing out changes on a database – whatever works.

(For a more in-depth discussion of frozen data versus active data, see the previous post here.)

Even if you’re using a DOI to get to a frozen version of the dataset, there should still be a link on the DOI landing page which points to the most recent version of the dataset. So if a scientist wants to get to the most recent version of the dataset, but only has a DOI to a frozen version, then they can still get to the most recent version in a couple of hops.

It is (theoretically) possible to record all changes to a dynamic dataset and guarantee (audited by someone) that, if needed, the data repository could back out all those changes to recreate the original dataset as it was on a certain date. However, the BODC did a few tests a while back, and discovered that backing out the changes made to their database would take weeks, depending on how long ago the requested version was. (This is a technical issue though, so I’m sure people are already working on solving it.)

You could instigate a system where citation is simply a unique reference based on a database identifier and the timestamp of extraction – as is already used in some cases. The main issue with this (in my opinion) is convincing users and journal editors that this is an appropriate way to cite the data. It’s been done in some fields (e.g. accession numbers) but hasn’t really gained world-wide traction. I know from our own experience at BADC that telling people to cite our data using our own (permanent) URLs didn’t get anywhere because people don’t trust urls. (To be fair, we were telling them this at a time when data citation was even less used than it is now, so that might change here and now.)

Frozen data is definitely the easiest and safest type to cite. But, we regularly manage datasets that are continually being updated, and for a long term time series, we can't afford to wait the twenty odd years for the series to be finished and frozen before we start using and citing it.

So we've got a few work-arounds.
  1. For the long running dataset, we break the dataset up into appropriate chunks, and assign DOIs to those chunks. These chunks are generally defined on a time basis (yearly, monthly), and this works particularly well for datasets where new data is continually being appended, but the old data isn't being changed. (Using a dead-tree analogy, the chunks are volumes of the same work which is released in a series and at different times - think of the novels in the series A Song of Ice and Fire for example - now that's a long running dataset which is still being updated*)
    1. A related method is the ONS (Office for National Statistics) model, where the database is cited with a DOI and an access date, on the understanding that the database is only changed by appending new data to it – hence any data from before the access date will not have changed between now and when the citation was made. As soon as old data is updated, the database is frozen and archived, and a new DOI is assigned to the new version. 
  2. For datasets where the data is continually being updated, and old measurements are being changed as well as new measurements appended, we take snapshots of the dataset at a given point in time, and those snapshots are frozen, and have the DOIs assigned to them. This is effectively what we do when we have a changing dataset, but the dataset is subject to version control. It also parallels the system used for software releases.
It's worth noting that we're not the only group thinking about these issues, there's a lot of clever people out there trying to come up with solutions. The key thing there is bringing them all together so that the different solutions can work together rather than against each other - one of the key tenets of the RDA.  

DOIs aren’t suitable for everything, and citing dynamic data is a problem that we have to get our heads around. It may well turn out that citing frozen datasets is a special case, in which case we’ll need to come up with another solution. But we need to get people used to citing data first!

So, in summary – if all you want from a citation is a link to the current version of the data: use a url. If you want to get back to the exact version of the data used in the paper so that you can check and verify their results: that’s when you need a DOI.

* Pushing the analogy a bit further - I'd bet there's hordes of "Game of Thrones" fans out there who'd dearly love to get their hands on the active version of the next book in "A Song of Ice and Fire", but I'm pretty sure George R.R. Martin would prefer they didn't!

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